WASHINGTON — When the Navy sent its first Trident submarine to a new base in Washington state, it was greeted by a man in a rowboat, Seattle Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen, who called the sub "the Auschwitz of Puget Sound."
Although such rhetoric may have struck some as overstated, it is what many Catholics in the Pacific Northwest have come to expect from the balding, silver-haired priest they call the "peace bishop."
In 1982 Hunthausen announced that he would withhold 50% of his personal income tax as a protest to government defense spending. He has continued to withhold part of his taxes as "an important and valuable witness" although the federal government, with his cooperation, has garnished his wages to collect the taxes.
The 65-year-old archbishop, and the disciplinary actions the Vatican has taken against him, are at the center of one of the thorniest controversies in the recent history of the Catholic Church in the United States.
The Vatican said Hunthausen was disciplined for deviating from church teachings on homosexuality, marriage and other issues.
Hunthausen's supporters, however, suspect that what has really gotten him into trouble is his activism against the arms race--in a community where aerospace is a major industry. Some observers believe that Hunthausen's liberal views--on both church practices and social issues--angered conservative Catholics who complained to the Vatican about them. The Vatican has denied that Hunthausen's anti-nuclear position was the basis for its investigation.
The eldest of seven children born in the copper mining town of Anaconda, Mont., Hunthausen, 65, is described by his close friends in the ministry as an unlikely man to be held up by the Vatican as straying from the church and its teachings. They say that despite his public protests, the archbishop is actually publicity shy.
"He was absolutely dumbfounded" when he was stripped of some of his powers, said the Rev. Michael G. Ryan, chancellor of the Seattle diocese who has known the archbishop for 10 years.
"He's a commoner," Ryan said. "There is not a pompous bone in his body."
"He's feeling deeply anguished," said Thomas J. Gumbleton, an auxiliary bishop in Detroit. "He considers that he is very loyal to the church, with all the implications that that carries."
"He is a very sincere, straightforward man," said Archbishop Francis T. Hurley of Anchorage. "There is no duplicity in him at all."
Hunthausen laid his case before his fellow bishops in an executive session on Tuesday. The closed inquiry will continue this morning.
The archbishop declined to be interviewed before the meeting at the Capitol Hilton, saying, "I'm sort of obsessed by what's happening."
The Vatican not only accused him of failing to adhere to church doctrine on a number of points, it sent an auxiliary bishop to Seattle to take over responsibility in five areas, including liturgy, ministries to homosexuals and marriage annulments. That action, described as unprecedented by some bishops, both shocked and humiliated the prelate.
Hunthausen, a former president and athletic director of Carroll College in Helena, Mont., is described by his diocese's biography as "the quintessential Vatican II bishop."
Associates say a hallmark of Hunthausen's 11 years as bishop of Seattle has been his open, "participative" style. "He believes people should have a voice in the church. It is their church," Ryan said.
That willingness to open the church, however, is part of what got him in trouble with the Vatican. In September, 1983, he allowed members of Dignity, a Catholic homosexual group, to celebrate a mass in St. James Cathedral in Seattle although the church condemns homosexual activity as immoral. "Yet they are Christians," Hunthausen said then. "How could I deny them a church?"
Hurley, the Anchorage archbishop, said that Hunthausen has an overwhelming "respect for other persons" and will listen patiently to the ideas of others, including those whose opinions he rejects. "He believes the fact that he is an archbishop doesn't make his opinion any better than anyone else's."
Vatican II Outgrowth
Although some of his supporters call his views radical, others say they are a natural outgrowth of the Vatican II conference called by Pope John XXIII in 1962, a meeting that many said liberalized the thinking of the church on social issues. Hunthausen had been consecrated bishop of Helena just weeks before Vatican II and he received "his on-the-job training there," Ryan said.
To many Catholic clerics, that is precisely why the Hunthausen case has become crucial. Some say privately that many others have done what the Seattle archbishop did, believing that they were acting in the spirit of Vatican II and hoping to bring families back into a church whose doctrines they seem increasingly ready to question.